Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Mae Ngai


The “Conservative Mandate”: From the people, or from big business?

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 22, November 21-December 4, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The big Republican victories in the national elections earlier this month have provoked many comments from the press about the country’s “conservative mood” and “turn to the right.” Especially with the rout of prominent veteran Democratic liberals, news commentators have been quick to conclude that mass sentiment in the United States has rejected the post-war era of liberalism and social reform and has turned to the right.

Certainly we will hear from Capitol Hill, too. Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch and Barry Goldwater, noted ultra-conservative Republicans who will now chair powerful Senate committees, claim they have a “mandate” from the American people to carry out a program of reaction. Their agenda includes bringing back the death penalty, outlawing affirmative action by constitutional amendment and other laws. Let the record be straight. This new conservative “mandate” does not come from the people of this country, especially from the working people, but from the board rooms of corporate power.

The “anti” vote

Analyzing the November 4 vote, the first thing to be noted is the fact that almost half the electorate did not vote at all. Included in this 50 million-plus number are millions of workers and oppressed people who have historically been alienated from bourgeois politics, as well as many others who have become more recently alienated as they have seen no fundamental improvements in their lives owing out of presidential elections, whether Republicans or Democrats won. But even among those who voted for Reagan, the reasons cannot be explained as simple conservatism. In fact, less than 10% of those who voted for Reagan did so because they viewed him as a conservative, according to a CBS/New York Times survey.

This same survey showed that 38% of the people who voted for Reagan did so because they “wanted a change.” Most cited “inflation” and “the economy” as their chief concerns. More than a “yes” vote for Reagan, it was a “no” vote to Carter, a rejection of Carter, who has been unable to solve the country’s economic problems, a rejection of four more years of broken promises.

Similarly, the heavy losses sustained by Democrats this year are due to the general perception that the Democratic economic policies have resulted only in high inflation, high taxes and more bureaucracy.

One political analyst, Everett Ladd of the University of Connecticut, warns that the crumbling of the old Democratic coalition does not represent any permanent realignment to the Republicans or right-wing ideology. Everett believes, rather, that a process of “de-alignment” is taking place, where voters who are seeking a change for the better will vote against the incumbents, regardless of party affiliation.

Furthermore, while many people have turned against the Democrats, they have not, as the media might suggest, turned against social welfare and social reform. Social security, unemployment insurance, welfare, medicaid, union rights and benefits are still generally upheld by a majority of working people.

Fighting the right

In this situation, what is needed is the building of a broad, mass movement to fight the attacks of the bourgeoisie and its rightward political climate. Though struggle is growing among many sectors of the population – workers, minorities, students, women, professionals, intellectuals – the mass movement and progressive forces are weak organizationally and lack clear leadership, and communists still constitute a relatively small force.

In this next period working people need to strengthen their own forces and unite with all that can be united to take a stand against the attacks on the masses and the activities of the right-wing reactionaries.

Key to building a strong movement that can stand up to the ruling class’ rightward motion is the development of the organization and fighting strength of the masses of workers and minorities, for it is the masses of working people who constitute potentially the most solid and powerful force against the enemy. Attention must be paid to building progressive mass organizations which can mobilize and unleash the power of the masses, organize self-defense and promote a program of struggle.

The crisis of Democratic Party liberalism also means that there will be a growing polarization, with some Democrats moving to the right, but others being pushed more leftward. Today the conservative trend has the upper hand, and this is likely to continue. But as conservativism grows, some liberal-reformist elements may bolt the Democrats and move towards some kind of labor, social-democratic or other type of third party. Machinist union President William Winpisinger might be seen in such an effort, for example.

Such a third party can potentially play an important role in fighting for the masses’ interests in the political arena, including electoral politics. In order for such an effort to be a viable alternative for workers and minorities, however, it must address their issues. The failure of the Citizen’s Party this year to do so was shown in their poor showing in the election. (Commoner received barely 200,000 votes.)

While uniting with other classes and strata where at all possible, especially around immediate issues, working people must not place their hopes in any revived bourgeois liberalism or social-democracy as the solution to their problems. Ideologically these trends promote reliance on the capitalist state to fulfill the needs of the masses and the illusion that capitalism can be reformed to be more humane – something which the current crisis proves false. Practically, the liberals and social-democrats encourage dependency on “friends” in Washington and downplay the need for mass struggle, a weak and ultimately losing strategy.

The crisis of U.S. imperialism in the 1980’s and the bourgeoisie’s swing towards the right, as highlighted by this year’s election, can be fought only if the masses of working people build a struggle alternative, one which militantly fights each and every daily assault by the monopolies and targets the capitalist system itself as the cause of the masses’ suffering. While uniting with all progressive sectors against the common enemy, it is in building the strength and organization of the working class and oppressed masses, and a strong alliance between the workers and minority movements, that the only real hope for fighting the rightward trend lies.